What is Contemporary Art?

Roshanak Keyghobadi | March 2015

Is the nature of artistic and aesthetic realization and interpretation of art by the artist and the viewer connected to the time of the artwork’s creation? Is the only criterion for art to be contemporary is being produced at the present time or is contemporaneity a more complex aesthetic state?

Art historian, Terry Smith (2006) in his essay “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity”[i] explains that, “the term contemporary calibrates a number of distinct but related ways of being in or with time, even of being in and out of time at the same time.” The temporal and spatial duality of state and location of contemporaneity testifies to its fluid nature. The common definition of contemporary is, “happening, existing, living, or coming into being during the same period of time and marked by characteristics of the present period.” And contemporaneity is “the quality or state of being contemporaneous or contemporary.”[ii] This definition suggests a lively, dynamic and vibrant state of becoming and happening.

Smith (2006) also adds, “Contemporaneity consists precisely in the constant experience of radical disjunctures of perception, mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world, in the actual coincidence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various cultural and social multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the fast-growing inequalities within and between them. He explains that the “acts of artists and the organizations that sustain them” produce the answer to what constitutes contemporary art.”

Another definition suggests that “Contemporary art is the art of today, produced by artists who are living in the twenty-first century. Contemporary art provides an opportunity to reflect on contemporary society and the issues relevant to ourselves, and the world around us. Contemporary artists work in a globally influenced, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world. Their art is a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenge traditional boundaries and defy easy definition. Diverse and eclectic, contemporary art as a whole is distinguished by the very lack of a uniform, organizing principle, ideology, or ‘ism.’ Contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality.“[iii]

In regard to contemporary Iranian art, art historian Hamid Keshmirshekan (2011) in his essay “Contemporary or Specific: The Dichotomous Desires in the Art of Early Twenty-First Century Iran” explains, “contemporary Iranian art, which on the one hand draws heavily on the Euro- American paradigm and, on the other, has selectively adapted existing art forms, is structurally heterogeneous. In the process of this adaptation, like Iranian culture as a whole, it has incorporated elements of Euro-American contemporary art while seeking to create the phenomenon of a localized contemporaneity. This alternative context of contemporaneity is obviously a response to canonical discourses and ideally, in turn, inscribes new discursive formations in the contemporary era. It was most probably by the 1990s that Iranian art witnessed a gradual change, departing from the frame of the newly emerging, post- revolutionary artistic Modernism, and incorporating new viewpoints of existing actualities. As with contemporaneity, the impetus for this came, in part, from the international arena and also from circumstances within, where the need to register reality in a transitional era in all its shifting forms became compelling.” [iv]

[i] Smith, T. (2006) Contemporary art and contemporaneity. Critical Inquiry, 32. Retrieved from: http://arts.rpi.edu/century/eao11/contemporary-terrysmith.pdf

[ii] Merriam-Webster.com

[iii] New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

[iv] Keshmirshekan, H. (2011). Contemporary or specific: the dichotomous desires in the art of early twenty-first century Iran. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, 4, (1), pp. 44-71.

Artwork by Nazgol Ansarnia

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2015. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.